Environmentalists are claiming a win against Whitehaven Coal after the miner agreed to stop clearing the Leard State Forest after a hearing in the Land and Environment Court.
The Maules Creek Community Council (MCCC) sought an injunction to halt the miner’s operational work in the forest, near Narrabri in north-west NSW.
The group, represented by environmental law experts, EDO NSW,claim Whitehaven is in breach of its development consent by clearing the forest during winter when animals, including threatened species, are hibernating.
It said the clearing is unlawful and contravenes the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.
A full case on this matter will be heard by the court in September and the MCCC wanted the clearing, underway to make way for the Maules Creek mine, halted until then.
Before a decision was made by the court on Thursday, Whitehaven agreed to stop its clearing activity.
MCCC spokesman and Maules Creek mine farmer Phil Laird said he was delighted at Whitehaven’s decision.
“This outcome today is a huge relief for the Maules Creek community and everyone that loves the wildlife of Leard State Forest. The slaughter of hibernating bats and other animals over winter was an outrage that has been rightly stopped today” Laird said.
“This outcome today sends a strong message to coal mining companies across NSW and to the NSW Government – if they will not enforce the law, then the community is prepared to step up and do it themselves.
“We appreciate the action taken by Whitehaven today and we will be preparing to vigorously pursue the full legal challenge.”
Whitehaven started clearing parts of the forest in late May after securing a change to its biodiversity management plan from the NSW Department of Planning and Environment (NSW DPE) on May 14.
Greens NSW MP and environment spokesperson, Dr Mehreen Faruqi said the miner should not have been given approval to fell trees in winter.
“It is outrageous that Whitehaven Coal was allowed to undertake winter clearing in the first place. This was completely unnecessary,” Faruqi said.
“There needs to be an investigation into how these approvals were granted by the NSW Government in the first place, as large tracts of endangered ecological communities have been cleared and cannot be replaced or offset.”
Environmentalists took to Twitter to express their elation that winter clearing would be halted.
Greenpeace is now calling on Planning Minister Pru Goward to stop all construction work at the site.
“We welcome today’s announcement but Minister Goward must immediately stop all work at Maules Creek coal mine,” Greenpeace Senior Climate Campaigner, Nic Clyde said.
Protests against the mine have been fierce, with activists joining together to disrupt its construction in the hope that if they can hamstring the project for long enough it won’t be built.
However Whitehaven says it is committed to going ahead with its $767 million mine.
“Voluntarily suspending clearance activity two weeks earlier than planned, considering the progress we have made to date, will not impact our progress overall and the project remains on track for first coal in March 2015,” Whitehaven CEO Paul Flynn said.
“This is a fully approved project and, sooner or later, even the EDO and its client must accept the inevitability of the outcome.
“We have negotiated in good faith with the EDO. Protestors at Maules Creek should show a bit of integrity themselves and stop engaging in unlawful trespass and protest activity at the site.
“The company will work toward recommencing clearance operations following the winter black out period, as planned, and continuing to deliver the significant economic boost Maules Creek is already providing to the Gunnedah Basin.”
The company said it will commence work to develop the box-cut and overburden emplacement areas in the mining area, which have already been cleared.
Whitehaven said it had been undertaking authorised clearance activities at Maules Creek in accordance with the biodiversity management plan approved by the NSW DPE.
It said it plans to defend the litigation in September.